Before 1960, the Aral Sea covered an area of 68,000 km2. Now, divided into two separate parts, it does not have in total even 6,800 km2, i.e. 10 % of its original area. What were the causes of this huge natural disaster and what consequences did it bring to life around the lake?
In the 1940s, the Soviet Union began building irrigation canals to support agricultural development in present-day Uzbekistan. However, these canals were not built well and a large part of the water disappeared before reaching the desired goal. In the 1960s, the Soviets decided to use water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the desert, on which they wanted to grow various agricultural crops, especially cotton. However, the rivers were a tributary of the Aral Sea, and increasingly massive irrigation began to cause water loss in the lake. Soviet scientists pointed out the possibility of drying out the lake a few years after the start of the project. There was even a plan to refill the lake with an artificial canal from the river Ob. In the end, however, no steps were taken against drying out.
Irrigation has had a positive impact on cotton cultivation in particular, making Uzbekistan the world's largest exporter. On the other hand, the ever-increasing desiccation has had a huge negative ecological impact on life around the lake. The declining volume of water in the lake caused an ever-increasing and higher salt concentration, which even exceeded the dead sea salt concentration and caused the death of all fish in the lake. The loss of water for farmers has led to greater use of fertilizers and pesticides that have contaminated the lake. The chemicals contained in the water and dust cause major health problems for the people living in the area.
Projects on the Kazakh side of the lake in recent years have led to a halt in water loss and even the return of fish and fishing. The total area of the northern lake, as it is called after the division into two parts, even increased from 2,550 km2 in 2003 to 3,300 km2 in 2008. Unfortunately, any efforts to save the lake on the Uzbek side are almost nil.